In the late 1800s, a society was formed in Massachusetts in response to the overwhelming amount of deaths occurring at sea. This group, aptly named “The Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” (no relation to the SPCA), first confronted this issue by setting up huts on isolated beaches with provisions for anyone who might wash ashore. These huts were filled with necessities — medicine, food, water, and firewood — and saved the lives of many people. After 18 of these huts were established, they tasked themselves with the design of the very first American lifeboat and began patrolling the waters themselves to save the lives of those drowning. Over time, more lifeboats were manufactured and dispatched by this organization, a remarkable feat for a group completely run and operated by volunteers.
In the beginning of the 1900s the U.S. Coast Guard — a government-run organization committed to the same task as the Humane Society — was established. In the beginning both organizations continued to patrol the waters, but as time went on the Humane Society patrolled less and less.
There was never any formal meeting. There was never any extensive discussion about the shift under way, but by 1946 all of the lifeboats were gone and the huts along the coast were completely discarded. Perhaps it was because the Coast Guard was paid. Perhaps it was because they were better trained. Regardless, the Humane Society was no longer truly needed.
The Society no longer fulfilled its original purpose but remained in existence. With a keen understanding of the value of saving lives, it began distributing awards to those who did so - but its own lifesaving days were over.
This story resonates with me because there seems to be a critical piece missing from many of our lives, a level of emotional fortitude that would allow us to bridge the gap from knowing about a subject to living for a subject. It is possible to have an authoritative voice on a subject of importance yet live a completely muted life. Knowledge does not equate to action.
Those who are passionate about a subject often pursue it with full force. They dedicate their lives to it, giving it everything they have. Over time, however, it’s easy to stop caring with the same level of commitment — and this shift isn’t always recognizable. The shift, to me, seems subtle and almost treacherous. It’s possible to be the foremost authority on a subject and no longer make an impact.
It’s good to want to save lives. It’s great to reward those who do so.
It’s better to save them.
Credit where credit is due: I heard the story about the Humane Society from Brian Sanders several years ago, and it’s apparently been rumbling around in my brain ever since.